The Boston Phoenix
September 21 - 28, 2000

Cheney's corporate past

Critics charge that the would-be VP ran a racist, oppressive company

by Seth Gitell

Nearly all the press coverage of George W. Bush's vice-presidential pick has focused on Dick Cheney's juicy $20 million stock-option deal from the Halliburton Company. But the press is missing the bigger -- and more significant -- story about Cheney's old company: Halliburton, an international conglomerate with substantial interests in oil, construction, and engineering, represents the absolute worst of corporate America. The company faces ongoing and unresolved complaints of racial discrimination; it does not allow employees to file discrimination suits; and it is notoriously anti-union.

A bizarre complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and publicized this month hints at the strained relationship between management and labor at Halliburton. A former employee charged that she had been wrongly dismissed from the company when she complained that it maintained separate bathrooms for Westerners and host-country nationals at its foreign sites. The story triggered a number of jokes on late-night talk shows. A Cheney spokeswoman, denying the candidate's knowledge of the practice, said that Cheney would not tolerate "harassment at any organization he's headed or been a part of."

But as more such details about Halliburton trickle out, they will surely undercut the ability of the Bush-Cheney ticket to reach out to one of the groups it needs to win the election: Reagan Democrats. Both parties have identified independent working- and middle-class voters in Midwestern swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois as the key to winning the presidential election. And Halliburton's notoriously anti-worker stance won't play well with this crowd.

Details of Halliburton's history also raise questions about George W. Bush's decision to name Cheney as his running mate in the first place. Several facts about the $15 billion company -- one arm of which, Brown & Root, is the largest contractor in Texas -- should raise red flags about the selection of Cheney. For example, Halliburton was fined in 1995 for violating federal trade sanctions against Libya.

"The difficulty is, they never vetted the vetter," says conservative commentator Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Hudson Institute, referring to the Bush camp's decision to name Cheney as the vice-presidential candidate after Cheney had been retained to screen potential candidates. "All of these questions that are now arising are the result of the failure to vet the vice-presidential candidate."

Cheney succeeded long-time Halliburton chairman Thomas Cruikshank as CEO in 1995. It's been well documented that Cruikshank and Cheney bonded a few months before the transition during a fly-fishing trip in British Columbia. It was then, observers say, that Cruikshank pegged Cheney as the perfect successor: the veteran oil man immediately saw the value of the former defense secretary's international contacts, which promised to be a powerful tool in drawing more international business.

Cheney agreed to take the job and inherited a well-established company with construction work under way both in the US and abroad. Halliburton's projects range from an ExxonMobil Chemical Company complex in Singapore to a tissue-paper factory in Louisiana to Houston's new baseball park, Enron Field. An August 1999 article in Texas Construction estimates that Halliburton's $7.9 billion in construction revenue in 1998 made up almost 40 percent of the total income brought in by the state's 60 largest contractors.

But Cheney also inherited a company with festering labor problems. Halliburton's construction arm, Brown & Root, has long drawn the ire of Texas labor leaders. "Brown & Root as an entity has never had a labor agreement," says Dale Wortham, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO in Houston. "They have been one of the most anti-union, anti-worker corporations in the world." By contrast, both W.S. Bellows and Bechtel -- two of Halliburton's main contracting competitors -- employ union workers and get high marks from labor leaders.

Fifteen years ago, the Texas Building and Construction Trades Council studied Brown & Root to find out why it was so hard to organize. The group found, among other things, that Brown & Root consistently lowballed its bids for construction projects, thereby squeezing out union shops. It completed most of its work on the cheap with non-union labor -- some of it provided by foreign workers who were in the United States illegally. Having made such low bids, Brown & Root not infrequently ran into trouble bringing the projects in under budget. Critics also say the company cut corners where it shouldn't have in order to contain costs.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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